1992, The Balkans
and Vadim hardly exchanged more than a couple of words
for about an hour, conserving their strength, as they
continued the half walk half jog that allowed them to
do good time. Keeping them warm in the freezing cold
without exhausting them. Except
but Dan refused
to acknowledge how his knees were bothering him after
an hour, and how the right knee was turning into agony
during the second hour. He had some painkillers left,
that would have to do.
kept back a little, every now and then turning to check.
He didn't like running with his back to the open valley.
Allowing Dan to set the pace, knowing Dan tended to
be slower. However, when he studied Dan's movements,
he could clearly see that the other favoured his good
leg. Shit. That, too. "Give me the bag", he
said, breath still steady.
Dan turned his head, continuing the pace. Not breathless
either, just as fit, but the goddamned pain was there.
Nothing he couldn't ignore. "No fucking need."
alright", murmured Vadim, just audible.
you." But without the venom, "I'm
Dan was about to add 'fine' or some other bullshit,
when he suddenly stopped, straining to listen. He was
certain he'd heard a sound, but nothing like an engine,
music? "What the fuck?" He
murmured, glancing at Vadim.
paused, crouched to be less of a silhouette against
the sky, breathing deeply, but also glad to rest for
a bit. He frowned, not quite sure what he was hearing.
Or rather, what it signified. "I think it's coming
from three o' clock."
threw the bag onto the ground and got the rifle at the
ready, before moving down into the ditch, pressed against
the frozen ground, peering onto the main road, while
Vadim took position between some bushes, covered, rifle
ready and aiming at the road.
sound was approaching, and Dan closed his eyes to concentrate.
No doubt. Music. Who the fuck would be crazy enough
in this hellhole to drive around with music blaring
out? And why
he suddenly waved to Vadim to come
closer. "Fuck, I recognise this!"
is it? Folk song?"
nodded, straining once more to be absolutely sure. "Some
crazy fucker is blaring out 'On the Far Bank of the
Pliva River', or however they call it. They changed
the lyrics, but I don't get more than a few words. Doesn't
matter, all that counts is that this is the new Bosnian
it just?" Vadim took the finger off the trigger.
"What now? Will you sing 'We Will Rock You' or
'God Save The Queen' so they don't put a dozen holes
in us when they see us?"
the fucking problem, isn't it? Shit." Dan looked
towards the approaching sound, then back at Vadim and
his eyes flashed. "We need to stop them first,
or they might not hear our melodious singing, aye?"
Looking around, he pointed to the pile of dead wood
in the ditch. "How long to get this onto the road?"
long until you're in shooting distance. We might already
be." Vadim cursed. "Would be nice to hitch
a ride, but this
" is too risky, he thought,
frowning. Where was a white flag - or a British flag
- if one needed it. "Could fire a few shots in
the air and hope they investigate before firing back."
try that, then. What have we got to lose?" Their
lives, hell, but Dan trusted they'd be able to kill
before getting killed, if they had to. "And we
could win a vehicle, either way." He shrugged,
took his position again, and peered over the edge of
the road. The music was getting so loud, he wondered
if those crazy bastards had a megaphone strapped to
sighed, but aimed at a cloud in a trajectory that wouldn't
cause the bullet to drop down on anybody's head, and
fired two pairs of two shots, but remained in cover.
followed suit, a short burst later, and the vehicle
that came racing along slowed down, the music still
blaring. It was so loud, the ground was reverberating
around them. Dan let lose another couple of shots, and
the vehicle stopped. Pick-up truck. What else. Couldn't
see anyone on the back, but that meant nothing. Dan
stayed where he was, kept the two guys in check that
jumped out of the front, rifles at the ready, and he
shouted at the top of his lungs, in his best drill sergeant
voice, "Don't shoot! We're British!" Adding,
for good measure, and despite the contrary, "We're
just hoped that his looks wouldn't cause them to think
he was just dressed up British, and let Dan have the
lead. He'd dealt with insurgents and all kinds of irregulars.
Watching as some guys got off the vehicle, thinking,
for a long moment, they might have been wrong and these
guys might be Serbs or whatever, who had merely tried
to appear Bosnian so they could round up the rest and
shoot them somewhere. That was when he told himself
he was getting hysterical or paranoid, or both. He raised
his rifle and stood up, absolutely hating to put himself
at the mercy of these guys.
saw what Vadim was doing, and he got up, hands in the
air, rifle on show. "Don't shoot!" Thankfully
the music was being switched off and the two guys didn't
shoot, looking at them with facial expressions that
instilled everything but trust. One of them was big,
older, he'd been in the driver's seat, holding what
seemed an AK, and the other was tall and thin, a young
man, hardly more than a kid, but his rifle was rather
different, at first glance the long barrel was prominent.
made his way out of the ditch, struggling for a moment,
when he threatened to slide back down on the icy ground
that slushed vegetation into slippery pulp, when the
thin guy said something to the bigger one, who called
out towards the back of the truck, and Dan understood
only a couple of words. "Come" and "English".
next moment three heads lifted from the pick up, one
of them a teenage girl, and another a boy who could
be hardly more than sixteen or seventeen, but it was
difficult to tell in a land where everyone had eyes
as age-old as that of mothers who'd seen their son and
daughters dying. The third seemed an old man, too frail
to be fighting, and yet he held a rifle, aiming at them.
young guy jumped off the truck, holding a rifle trained
onto Dan and Vadim, when he addressed them in English.
Accented, but better than expected. "Who are you?
Why are you here?"
mercenaries", said Vadim, lowering his weapon very
carefully and slinging it back over his shoulder. "We
got lost. Undercover. You understand?" He tried
a smile, tried to fit the pieces together, instead noticed
the Dragunov sniper rifle in the lanky kid's arms and
was stabbed by a moment of envy. He really, really liked
that rifle. A fucking life-saver.
looked from one to the other, nodding.
met some chetniks down the road." Vadim pointed
at the village. "They didn't make it."
it?" The boy demanded, but Dan shook his head,
laughing without humour.
Unless you want to drive back there, there's no way
to prove that the kit we stole from them wasn't ours
in the first place."
they don't wear dog tags that we could have taken as
trophies", Vadim added.
boy frowned and Dan exchanged a glance with Vadim. "Your
English is good." The kid pointed at Dan.
because I am fucking British." Moving his hand
to his jacket pocket when he suddenly had a thought,
Dan stalled, made a placating gesture when rifles were
getting too twitchy. "Hang on, just want to show
you something." They nodded, the kid said something
to the big guy, and Dan pulled out both his map and
a couple of chocolate bars. British chocolate bars,
Cadbury's dairy milk, couldn't get any more British
than that. The kid's eyes almost popped out of his head
at the sight. "See?" Dan held the front of
the map up, printed in English, "and these chocolate
bars, where would you get them here?"
kid talked rapidly with the big guy, the lanky one added
a few words as well, and Dan didn't understand anything,
they were talking so fast.
The kid finally said and the other two nodded. "We
believe you." He was still staring at the chocolate
bars and Dan smiled.
gave a laugh, typical of Dan to make friends that easily,
over a piece of sweets, as Dan generously handed out
his chocolate, and even the girl came down from the
truck. The rifle seemed far too large for her small
you take us a bit down that road?" Vadim asked.
One of them had to remain focused. He pointed at the
map. "We need to get back to camp." We shouldn't
be here, he thought, but didn't want to tell them that.
He didn't want to appear as somebody who'd prefer to
sit on their hands and do nothing about the slaughter.
Because, in his case, that simply wasn't true.
big guy nodded, and the lanky one opened his mouth for
the first time. "We go town." Pointing along
the road. "Come. Come."
looked at Vadim and nodded. The town they were referring
to was fairly small and closer to camp. He pointed it
out on the map, especially the bridge that connected
the town with the hilly forests that stretched all the
way down to camp. On the other side of the river.
nodded. "That works for us." He moved to get
their kit, slapping Dan's shoulder when he passed him,
and loaded himself with both his own and Dan's kit.
From the town, it shouldn't be difficult. The terrain
was rugged, but unless something had happened to that
bridge, it was all within limits, even if he counted
in Dan's fucked knees.
climbed into the back of the truck, where the old man
nodded at him and the girl just looked, looked with
huge dark eyes, and then the boy jumped inside as well.
Stjepan." The youth flashed a grin at Dan and Vadim,
showing off his weapon, like other kids would show off
their new walkman. "This is Sanya and over there
is Uncle Bocic."
Dan smiled a little, "and this is
hesitating for a moment, realising that a Russian name
wouldn't instil much confidence, "everyone calls
my friend Rocky." Flashing a quick glance at Vadim,
who nodded, stoic, but understanding. He was reasonably
confident they wouldn't peg him by his accent. It took
more skill at a language to place other non-native speakers.
laughed, even though his eyes were never touched by
any of these emotions. The music suddenly came on again.
Earth shattering loud, but very different to what it
had been before. Dan sat up, couldn't believe his ears
and turned towards the driver cab. The big guy was looking
at him, thumbs up, and grinning from ear to ear, as
Jimi Hendrix blared out of what was, indeed, a megaphone
strapped to the vehicle.
Along the Watchtower'? Are you lot completely fucking
bonkers?" Dan asked no one in particular, when
the pick-up started, and he had to dive for something
to hold onto, as the car shot forward with screeching
shook his head, for moment felt a chill when he remembered
the stuff they'd pulled off dead turkeys in Afghanistan.
Rock music, like this. Probably the same group or singer,
even. He had never cared much for it, but the younger
recruits had loved it. He shifted to cover the area
behind them, figuring that was the most likely angle
nothing happened, despite the insanity of playing music
that loud, there were no attacks, no one on the road.
Racing at top speed towards the town, the girl was drinking
from a coke bottle. She offered some to Dan and 'Rocky',
who declined. Dan, however, took a sip, the sugar and
caffeine kick was a godsend, and then offered his precious
cigarettes. The only one who declined was the girl,
and despite Stjepan's age, Dan was the last one to argue
the kid shouldn't smoke. Existing in a hell like this?
Where father had turned against son and neighbours tortured
neighbours? He'd hardly die from nicotine induced cancer.
into the corner behind the cab, Dan let his eyes wander
along the hill tops, scanning for anything out of the
ordinary, but nothing. Nothing at all, until they came
closer to the town, and suddenly there was smoke. Dan
prodded Vadim, pointing wordlessly to the signs of fire.
Vadim shifted, narrowing his eyes as he peered into
the distance. But it was a silent tableau - no way that
they could hear anything, not against the music, when
they turned a corner and it all became clear from one
second to the next.
Dan yelled, "are you fucking insane?"
Staring at the kids, but there was no emotion in their
faces, neither in the old man's. Completely stoic, as
if they were already dead, or as if the roadblock, the
armoured vehicles in the distance and the goddamned
shelling that was bombarding the goddamned town that
was goddamned under fucking siege was
the most normal thing in the world. "Get down!
Get the fuck down!" Dan threw himself flat onto
the ground, as the pick-up truck raced towards the roadblock.
contemplated getting out right now, but figured they'd
be dead anyway, unless they were incredibly lucky or
the old guy knew something they didn't. He pulled in
his head, braced, knew he didn't stand a chance of getting
out unscathed at this speed. Heading for a direct collision,
mind razor sharp and numbed at the same time as adrenaline
kicked in. "Fucking bastards", he shouted,
as if that changed anything.
kept his head down, felt limbs close by, unable to figure
out if it was Vadim or any of the others, as he clung
to the side of the pick-up. Jimi Hendrix's guitar was
screaming in his ears, the truck speeding along, dangerously
veering from side to side, and he counted the seconds
before the impact.
was harsh, and painful. Smashing through the barriers,
as bullets went flying, not any longer sure what were
guitar riffs and what were fired rounds, the truck lost
control, racing in a diagonal line towards a shelled-out
building. Lifting his head, only enough to peer over
the edge, Dan shouted "Fuck!" They were speeding
towards a couple of burnt out cars, and there was no
way the driver was still in control, if alive. But he
couldn't jump out, he found his leg grabbed by the teenage
girl, clinging to him as to life itself.
gritted his teeth, knew he had to do something, absolutely
anything, and acted without thinking much. Sticking
his head out entirely too far, he smashed through the
separating window with his pistol and knocked out as
much of the shards as possible, then reached in, stretching
as far as he could to get to the wheel, steadying it,
while at the same time using it to pull himself through
the window that was never meant to allow passage to
a large-framed guy in winter clothes. Hissing as he
noticed he'd cut himself, but managed to get most of
his body into the driver's cabin, kicking to get his
legs in because he couldn't reach the brakes from his
position, while the vehicle continued to race, because
the dead guys' leg was on it. Vadim pulled the handbrake
with all his strength, causing a grinding, screeching
sound deep in the engine.
fucking lunatic!" Dan forced out, but he knew just
as well, that Vadim's crazy stunt was the only chance
they had not to get turned into a mess of splintered
bones and torn flesh. The truck was veering from side
to side, the movements getting more extreme, and it
hit the second of the burnt-out cars, the impact enough
to make it lose balance. It had slowed down enough to
topple over, almost in slow-motion, sliding along the
frozen ground on its side, the bottom of the vehicle
towards the attackers on the hill, and Vadim was tossed
against some of the remaining shards, twisted and turned
and bit back a scream - pain, confusion, whatever, he
couldn't allow that to affect him.
held onto the railing, as he yelled to the others in
the back, "Get out! Get the fuck out!" But
the girl didn't react, clinging to both of his legs
now, making it impossible to move while the old man
was thrown out, and Stjepan jumped, immediately rolling
managed to carefully squeeze free - not into the cabin
but through the cabin out of the window, and fell to
the ground, in pain, rolling over and readying the rifle.
Hoping he wasn't cut up badly, not that the adrenaline
would allow him to feel anything much right now. He
was in cover, protected by the car, then shouted, "Sitrep?"
answer, while Dan pulled the girl up and out of the
way, propelling her into safety behind the same rubble
that the boy had jumped behind. Finally able to move.
He looked around himself and found the old man on the
ground, blood coating the white hair, his eyes wide
open, staring at nothing. "One dead." He jumped
out, ensured he took everything with him, while Hendrix
kept singing and playing. Why wouldn't that goddamned
music stop? "Kids alive." Staying behind cover
of the truck, he crawled towards Vadim, and his hand
descended onto the other. Heavy. Warm. "You?"
nodded. "Might need patching up." He glanced
up. "Let's go. Out of the fucking kill zone."
Dan nodded, "but first
" He moved towards
the cab, before Vadim could protest, reaching inside
and switching the damned radio off. Only then realising
that the lanky kid was still alive. Holding his arm
and moaning in pain. "Shit." Calling towards
Vadim. "Help me to get him out."
got to his feet, then noticed blood running down the
insides of his camo - predictably. He'd cut himself
somewhere in the waist area, left side. Fuck. "I'll
get the door, we'll lift him out together." He
climbed the side of the car, wrenched the door open,
expected a bullet for his misplaced bravery, but none
came. He helped Dan lift the kid out, like they'd rehearsed
the motions a hundred times, one holding when the other
let go. Vadim tensed when the exertion hurt, making
the cut open and gape, and he just hoped that no shit
had entered the wound. How clean had the glass been?
And how deep had it gone?
were quick, functioning like a well oiled machine. They
got the kid behind the barriers, Dan carrying the sniper
rifle across his back, when he finally took a moment
to look up and around. Stjepan was beckoning to them
from the gaping door of what looked like a former department
store. Now bombed and shelled, burnt in several areas,
but the writing above the now boarded up windows still
spoke of the delights of consumerism inside. If only.
Dan nodded to Vadim and they hurried inside, leaving
the worst of the danger behind them.
took only a second after they'd laid the lad down in
a corner, before Dan drew up to his full height, yelling
at Stjepan, "what the fuck were you thinking? You
fucking idiots! Fucking damned stupid killers, you
Finding himself presented with half a dozen rifles,
safety off, pointing at both him and Vadim.
Dan, easy." Vadim raised his hands and thought,
how ironic, getting shot now would be really funny.
"Easy." Squinting into the dark, trying to
make out who might be in charge - not fucking easy when
nobody wore uniforms or any kind of tassel. "We're
British mercs. We got lost. We mean you no harm."
Raising his arms, he could feel another trickle of blood
run down his side. Gaping again.
Dan frowned, but raised his hands as well. "You
listening? We're not your damned enemies and we sure
as fuck didn't mean to get into this bloody situation."
Looking at Stjepan with such intensity, that the boy
turned to the others and spoke to them, rapidly. Dan
hardly understood a word, but the body language was
non-threatening, and there was eye contact. The guys
finally lowered their weapons, nodding slightly, even
though there was no way they trusted the two strangers.
Too obvious in their faces, but who was to blame them.
came closer, nodding. "It's okay, they believe
you, but they ask what you are doing here." Dan
glanced at Vadim, nodded slightly, saying without words
that he was going to deal with it. And he did, telling
the kid what he needed to know, all the parts of the
tale that were true but did not discriminate them. He
saw from the corner of his eyes that a couple of women
were dealing with the lanky kid's arm which appeared
to be broken or shot. Stjepan relayed the tale to the
others and the wariness gradually vanished from the
faces, until they nodded at Dan.
got to answer me a question now." Dan was
still just as pissed off. "Why the fuck didn't
you tell us? Taking us into a besieged town?
You are a fucking bunch of bastards!"
shrugged, proceeded to take a pouch of tobacco from
his jacket pocket, rolling a cigarette. "We need
And what the fuck do you think we can do?" But
Dan didn't wait to hear the answer, when he caught something
in the corner of his eyes. Vadim. His jacket. Vadim
and blood running down into the BDU's. "Fuck!"
he left the kid and turned to the other.
gave a pained smile. "Yeah. Fuck." Now that
the adrenaline was beginning to turn stale, the pain
came in. It wasn't too bad, he kept telling himself,
couldn't be bad, or he'd be losing more blood. Probably
looked worse than it was. "I'll be okay. Just help
me to patch that up, will you?" He moved away from
the door, put the bergan down. "Light. You have
to check whether there's any fibre or other shit in
the wounds. And whether it's deep. I can't tell."
don't need to tell me." Dan sounded gruff, hiding
the concern. "I survived a few years in the fucking
" Covering that I'm nervous, Vadim thought.
Stick to the rule book, do what's drilled in.
around, Dan noticed an old fashioned full length dressing
mirror that must have been in one of the changing rooms
once. It tilted and was only half shattered. Going to
retrieve it, he manoeuvred Vadim into a corner, close
to a shot window, the mirror in tow. "Don't tell
me about windows and danger. We need fucking light,
you said so yourself." Positioning the mirror so
that the daylight reflected at maximum impact, illuminating
as much as it could in a fairly large spot.
stripped out of jacket, vest, shirt, undershirt, baring
his upper body to the cold. Checking himself by slightly
twisting and prodding at the cuts, before Dan slapped
his hands away, which made him huff with laughter.
figured the belt had prevented him from getting cut
up more, but there were several deep scratches along
his side, a darkening mark on his ribs - but he could
still breathe deeply, so didn't think any bones were
broken, just some more or less serious bruising. The
most worrying thing was a deep gash in his side, the
source of most of the blood. Keeping his back covered,
not allowing anybody to see the scars. The alphabet
looked too Russian. "Just clean it and sew it up
if it's deep. I got bandages." Reaching for his
do I. You just fucking sit still and stop moving."
Dan frowned, the best way to keep himself from worrying.
Worrying about what? Vadim catching an infection? Vadim
catching a cold? Vadim hurting? Vadim getting shot,
shit. Always Vadim, but he'd known that
all along. Crouching down beside the other, he took
his gloves off to check the wound. "I need something
nodded towards his shoulder bag. "There's a flask
of vodka. As always. Never leave the house without it."
Voice slightly strained.
One of the few things you damned Russkies ever did right."
Vadim murmured. "Don't need a lynching on top of
" Glancing over to the Bosniaks.
Yeah." Dan murmured, then rummaged in the bag,
pulling out the flask. "You know as much as I do
that this will hurt like fuck. Then again it could be
worse. I could have to suture it."
grinned. "Will hurt like a bad fuck. Good
fucks hurt in a good way."
bastard." Dan growled, but there was something
in his voice that was everything but annoyed. Caring.
Damn. Fishing in his own pockets for a pack of tissues,
Dan leaned close and poured the vodka along the cut,
making Vadim tense, hiss and groan. Dan caught the overspill
with a tissue, wiping the blood away. Cleaning and sterilising
in one go.
news. It is worse and I have to stitch it."
Dan looked up, dark eyes in pale ones. No joke, no banter.
"I'll be quick. It's not the first time I've done
I figured. Just make sure there's no broken glass in
there. Fuck. Where's Dima when you need him?" He
shook his head. "He'd tell me to shut the fuck
up and stop mewling."
up, Dan's eyes were once more on Vadim. Needle and thread
in his hand from his own first aid belt kit, his eyes
as serious as before, and his voice calm. "He's
in the French embassy."
Vadim looked up, meeting Dan's eyes with intensity that
might be anger or pain. "You took him? Fuck. And
No more. Not the hundreds of words that needed to be
said. Just Dan's eyes and a look that met Vadim's. No
point in hiding.
Vadim suddenly gave a nod, all that stuff made sense.
Dan had followed him, found Dima, brought him away.
Played him. He grinned sharply. Dan rarely fooled him,
but he'd fooled him about Dima. And Dima, the bastard,
had obviously taken the opportunity, and likely fooled
Dan into believing he was an innocent, a tourist in
this war. Clever bastard. "That's one thing off
my mind." Leaving fifteen or so others.
now. Unless your friend doesn't stick to the little
lie I concocted." Dan shrugged, finally took his
eyes off Vadim's face. "Now sit still and stop
gave an involuntary laugh, but held still, watching
Dan suture him, the needle threading in and out of his
flesh, left and right of the gaping cut. Fast, efficient,
clearly not the first time he'd done that. Vadim held
his breath to make things as easy for Dan as possible,
forced himself to take the pain, just accept it, watching
the stitching with clinical interest, jaw muscles tight
and teeth grinding.
Snipping the thread off, Dan reached for the sterile
bandages, pressing a large pad onto the wound, gesturing
for Vadim to take over the pressure, and he did, noticing
his hand was cold and sweaty, but steady. "Not
as good as a surgeon, but it's not that I haven't scarred
you before." Matter-of-factly, while unrolling
an elastic bandage to hold the pad firmly into place.
time you close the cuts, though." Vadim gave a
small smile. He'd like to rest, but if he interpreted
the sounds outside correctly, the war there objected
to him having some painkillers and a nap.
looked up again, stopped for a moment what he was doing.
"Aye. But it seems we're not very good at closing
I'm better at dishing them out than taking them",
Vadim murmured, face dark. "I'm such a nutbox."
don't argue that point." Finishing off bandaging
Vadim's waist, Dan tied the ends securely. "But
there's a fucking war out there, and if I'm not mistaken,
we'll be minced meat in this place in, ah, a day or
so? Happy prospect, eh?" Fishing in his jacket
pockets, he pulled out his painkillers. "Here.
They should work. Take two."
frowned, glancing down at Dan's knee. "I'll be
alright. Makes me sleepy, I don't like that."
shrugged and ignored the glance, took a couple of painkillers
himself, washing them down with a mouthful of water
from his bergan, while Vadim stood, slipping back into
his clothes. He was getting fucking cold and sharing
warmth with Dan wasn't an option. "Urban warfare.
My favourite", he murmured, listening to the sounds
get the intel, then." Dan stood up as well, scratching
the stubble that was irritating him already. "Hey!"
Calling out to Stjepan, "you wanted help? You better
tell us what the fuck's been going on here."
kid reluctantly moved towards Dan, nervously rolling
another cigarette, the rifle slung across his back.
"Didn't do it deliberately."
really?" Dan snorted.
Frowning, one hand smoothing the frazzled ponytail in
his dark hair, "didn't know you were on that road,
but ... we need everyone we can get."
do what? Die?"
" Stjepan looked around him, furtively, before
hardly meeting Dan's eyes. "This is my home town."
that means exactly what to us?"
you'd be just a fucked without us, somewhere on the
road, than you are here?" The kid lifted his chin
shrugged, "at least we wouldn't be sitting ducks."
Turning away, Stjepan lit his cigarette. "But we
wouldn't be, if they didn't hold the bridge."
nodded. "The bridge. If they can shut it down,
they might be safe. At least, killing them would be
a hell of a lot more inconvenient - until summer, of
head whipped around, he hadn't expected Vadim to stand
behind him. Where had his senses gone?
frowned and looked at the kid. "Is that it?"
nodded, but then stalled. "Almost." Truth
dragged out like the smoke from his cigarette. "They
say we won't hold out any longer than another day, unless
a miracle happens. But we can't cross that bridge, anyone
who tries gets shot down."
Dan let out, heartfelt. "Frying pan into the fire."
a kill zone, from what I've seen on the way in",
said Vadim, anger carefully guarded. "Wasn't much,
didn't have the time to get a feel for the place."
His lips tightened. "I need to borrow that rifle.
The Dragunov." He pointed to the kid with the broken
arm. "And we might have to hold out till nightfall.
But we can deal with that bridge. The C4 you have should
be enough to blast it away." He looked at Dan.
"Fancy some dirty spec ops stuff that's against
the rules of engagement, deep in enemy territory?"
lifted his head, thinking, judging, already going through
all the options available to them. When he met Vadim's
gaze a slow and utterly dangerous smile was spreading
across his face. "What do you think I've been doing
most of my life?"
Wait. Maybe dirty spec ops stuff that's against the
rules of engagement and deep in enemy territory?"
kid seemed confused, when Dan laughed, but Dan waved
him off to get the sniper rifle for Vadim, explaining
how 'Rocky' had been a sniper, back in the days, and
how this really was the best idea of them all.
Dan sat down in a corner, shielded away from the rest
of the men and women. There were more people than they'd
started to clean the Dragunov. Just like the AK, the
Dragunov was a fairly forgiving weapon, sturdy as hell
and reliable to boot, but he had no idea through whose
hands the rifle had passed and he was giving it a good
clean, taking it apart and wiping it all down, scraping
away dirt and grime like in the old days. Calmed his
mind, cleared it, made life look simple, mechanical.
thinking about this shit." Dan was spreading out
some of the food. All they had left was a handful of
sandwiches, and the precious water. "I'd like to
kill the whole fucking lot of those for getting us in
this situation, but that won't do. Second best plan
is, what do those bastards outside expect the least?"
counter-attack?" Vadim glanced up while his fingers
connected the first part to the second, a gentle, soft,
tender click announced that the Dragunov responded to
his care. "My guess is, they have a sniper or two.
I can probably deal with the bastard. If you don't have
artillery or air support, get a good sniper to take
out the enemy sniper. I can do that. Not rocket science,
just a waiting game."
Dan grinned, as feral as in the days of Mad Dog and
his suicide operations. "They don't seem to have
the heavy guns out, either. I saw armoured vehicles
and RPGs. There's shelling going on and possibly some
light tanks from what I can make out. Nothing serious,
eh?" He laughed, entirely humourless. Handing a
sandwich to Vadim, who placed it on a thigh and continued
putting the rifle back together. "Nothing I haven't
dealt with before." In Afghanistan. On the 'other'
side. "If we draw their attention to this bit
Dan made a swift sweeping gesture in the grime on the
floor, a defence line, the front of the town, a hundred
yards away from where they were, "they'll be forced
to take their focus off the bridge, and voila, Bob's
how, short of calling in the cavalry, are you going
to do that? I mean, sending the poor bastards out to
attract the sniper so I can spot him is not one of the
old Molotovs." Dan smirked, biting into his own
sandwich, which tasted like cardboard. "Remember
the 70s? All those damned hippie protestors? Throw a
Molotov at a vehicle, and if you feel really lucky,
add some soap powder to it, and it'll stick, drawing
out any rat. They open the hatch and wham you
splatter their fucking brains like you splattered those
villagers', back in the mountains." Glancing around
himself. "Let's face it, there doesn't seem to
be anything worth saving in this place. So, burn the
front," making dots along the line he'd drawn with
a finger, "here, here and here, will get them really
confused and worried." He was chewing for a moment,
before his eyes lit up, even more feral than before,
"and the fucking idiot with his music? How much,
you think, would those bastards appreciate a dose of
ear-drum splitting Hendrix? Mighty confusion, aye? While
we operate under cover of the noise."
grinned. "Beats flanking them and killing their
guards and as many as possible in the dead of the night
until somebody wakes up and we end up lynched. Not by
much, mind you, but at least we won't be cold."
snarled, his grin was so nasty it hardly resembled a
human emotion. "And in the meantime? We get the
survivors across the bridge. Leaving plenty of time
for us to head over ourselves and then blow the bridge
up." Shoving the rest of the sandwich into his
mouth, his last words were mumbled. "What do you
think? Now they just have to buy it."
game. I don't mind taking the survivors with me on the
way out. If they join us, cool, if not, nothing we can
do. We can't force these guys. Fuck, we likely can't
even protect them once we got them out. Or what do we
do with the poor fuckers?"
we do with them? That's not the question, because we
need them." Dan washed his food down with
a couple of mouthfuls from the precious water. "You
never had to work with a bunch of ragtag, unorganised
individuals before, did you? It was all orders, conform,
duty for you, but we can't send out cannon fodder this
time, we haven't got any. We have to convince these
people here, because we need them. This is not a one-man
show, not even a two-man one. We can't do it alone,
as much as that might irk."
fuck", groaned Vadim. "Okay. Okay. You've
done this job, and yes, I've tried to bring some skills
to a bunch of goat herders, but that was the Afghan
secret police, and those guys
were a different
kettle of fish. And besides, I didn't like that part
of the job very much." Another piece of the Dragunov
clicked into place, and Vadim checked it, making sure
everything was in the best order possible, all moving
parts smooth and well-greased. "I just won't let
this place kill me. Whatever it takes."
my intention as well." Dan grinned, "so, we
are clear, I convince them and you stand behind me,
running the show together, aye? I can't do it without
you, I'm not a fucking sniper, never was, just a good
shot." Dan shook his head, "and you got the
discipline, while I got
" he flashed another
feral grin, "something like 'creative chaos'."
He was repacking his bergan, glancing over to Stjepan,
who sat crouched beside the teenage girl. His sister?
Who knew, but whatever had happened to that girl, Dan
was wondering if her eyes could be anymore dead even
if she lay buried beneath the ground.
merely glanced at the girl - it just wouldn't do to
think of his Anya, or go all soft and mushy and fatherly,
because, yes, fuck, father was a word that bit
too fucking deep right now. "You convinced me."
now we just got to convince them
" and with
that Dan stood up and walked over to the kids, followed
by Vadim who felt his wound. It would get a lot worse
before it got better, but he was, above all, operational.
looked up when Dan stopped in front of him. "We
have a plan."
kid frowned, "Yeah? To get us all out?"
Dan echoed, " it was you who thought 'we need help'
was a fucking good excuse to get us into this shit.
Why the hell did you even go back? This is insanity."
Making a sweeping gesture towards the outside.
families are still here." Stjepan pushed his lower
lip out, to all intents and purposes sulking, and looking
no older than the sixteen or seventeen that he was.
"At least what's still left of them."
glanced at Vadim for a moment, who gave the smallest
of nods. "Okay, and how many people are still here?
a hundred?" Stjepan shrugged. "Most of them
are elderly or kids. Everyone else has been fighting,
was shot, or was pulled out before the chetniks came."
are they hiding?" Dan looked around, couldn't see
any of those Stjepan described.
the cellars. This town is old, despite the buildings
here. It's middle ages in the centre, and most of the
buildings have cellars that are connected."
" Dan glanced at Vadim again, a
small smile spreading across his face when an idea came
to him. "So, that means you can move around the
town without having to surface?"
all of it." Stjepan shook his head. "The buildings
at the waterfront are destroyed, no exit there. Some
parts, though, yes. It's a bit like rats in a tunnel."
He shrugged, fishing for his tobacco.
in a tunnel." Vadim gave a grin. "Best piece
of news I've heard all day. Are you thinking what I'm
thinking?" He looked at Dan, who smirked back at
eh? Buildings, not jungle."
Urban combat with tunnels. I love it already. And that's
why they didn't take the city yet. They're not risking
losses. I think
I'm dying for a proper tour of
like a good idea, right after I've explained our plan."
Stjepan got up slowly, lighting his thin stick of a
cigarette, while Sanya remained sitting on the ground,
pretty much as before. Her facial expression never changing.
What's the last thing those bastards out there expect?"
shrugged, "no idea?"
of course. They think this place is just about to fall,
and you know this is true as well as they do. How much
longer can you hold out? What about your ammo, food,
water, the wounded?"
would have taken them out, but we can't!" Stjepan
frowned, reacting as defensively as if Dan had accused
him of anything. "The chetniks have the bridge
under control. Day and night, everyone who tried to
cross it got shot, and those who tried to swim to the
other side, never made it. The currents are too strong."
but they haven't destroyed the bridge, right? Even though
they could. If they can snipe anyone who's on it, they
can shell the whole construction."
grinned, and it was a truly frightening smile. "Exactly.
That's why we have to get their attention away from
I said, by attacking them from the front."
are insane!" Stjepan looked at Dan as if he'd sprouted
a second head.
Rocky and I here, are both ex-SAS. We're
the best chance you've got, and if you don't take it,
you'll be dead by morning, together with everyone in
those cellars, once the town has been taken. Or do you
really think the chetniks are going to take them to
a safe place?"
said nothing, but his facial expression spoke volumes,
looking across to the teenage girl for a long moment.
Finally shaking his head.
Dan nodded. "Now that we understand each other,
you got to convince the others. In the meantime we'll
figure out the details of the plan."
think we just go out there and shoot at their goddamned
tanks? Hardly." Dan let out a sound, close to a
laughter but none of the humour. "Just trust me,
We've got it all sorted."
Stjepan nodded once. "I'll talk to them."
He was off within the next moment, over to a group of
turned to look at Vadim, lowering his voice, as he grinned
wryly. "Guess I better come up with the plan now,
gave a smile. "A map would be good. A tour, too.
We should have the afternoon and evening for the decisions,
plans, and preparation." Glancing around again.
"I'm in the right mind to draw them in and slaughter
them in the tunnels."
suicidal." Dan frowned, then scratched the stubble
on his jaw. It itched, and it was more than just a beard
shadow after a day and night. "Then again, it might
be a last resort."
If we can't make it out."
walked back to their bergan, sitting down and waiting
for Vadim. "We have to disable their tanks first.
Fortunately they are shitty little things, nothing like
ours, and no way they are airtight, so drawing them
out with smoke and fire should work." He gestured
behind him, outside to the wrecks in the street. "How
much petrol you think is left in those? There seemed
to be quite a few and not all were burnt out."
Flashing a grin, "and I'd wager there's some soap
or washing powder still flying around, same for bottles
and rags should be in plenty supply."
And we can move around looking for that stuff without
drawing the sniper's fire. Unless you want me to try
and locate him and shoot him while you gather the ingredients."
think it's only one? I don't. Still, damn, getting to
the cars means we'd have to be moving in daylight. If
" Dan pondered, didn't finish the
sentence while drawing idly with his fingers in the
dust on the ground. "My plan is to get everyone
who's fit enough to gather the supplies, using those
cellar systems. If there are about a hundred people
left, they can't be all too young or too old to siphon
petrol, find soap powder, gather bottles, fill them,
and stuff them with rags, ready to be thrown when we've
drawn the tanks close. But we need a distraction for
" Dan sucked on his teeth.
"Of course, we'd have to rig up good old Jimi,
from as high as possible, directing the sound at them.
There must be some sort of equipment left in this place
that isn't shot to pieces. Speakers, anything. This
was a department store, after all. That should bloody
well distract and confuse those bastards."
And they can't cover all the town. I don't think it's
a dozen snipers - their priority is the bridge, obviously,
and if they can take pot-shots at people moving through
the streets too close, excellent. I'd love to see a
muzzle flash so I can pinpoint at least one of them."
sorted, then. I draw one of them out, you kill him.
Easy." Dan let out a huff, but he was deadly serious.
"That should worry them, make them even more ready
to send all they have when we attack." A slow grin
began to spread. "We need light. If we burnt down
the corner buildings, encouraging the fire to spread
along the front row, but keeping the second one free
that should give us enough time to confuse them
completely, and enough light for you to shoot them like
rats when they get out of their smoking tanks in blind
panic. I've seen it before, it worked with you lot,
why not with them."
Reduced visibility and the slow movements. Tanks in
cities - bad idea." Vadim grinned. "I can
do that. No big deal."
bet once they start dropping they'll get their artillery
all the way to the front, leaving the bridge alone,
and the people can leave under cover of darkness. Their
town burning in the front, while we cover up any suspicious
sounds with the music. That tape must still be in the
Let's get it when it's dark. We can rig the front row
buildings with petrol and gas and whatever they have.
To keep the fire where we want it. Determine which area
we're going to burn to the ground."
nodded. "Seems you have more experience in that.
I leave the buildings to you. In the meantime
he pondered a moment, "I got to rig the bridge
with the C4. If we don't blow it up after we're all
across we won't make it very far. Just trying to figure
out the best time. I need light, but so does the sniper."
But of course, that was it, "unless we combine
those two. Thoughts?"
frowned. "Draw their fire and kill them. So you
stand a chance with that bridge." He rubbed
his face. "They'll likely notice some activity
here, means the snipers will be watching. But I need
them to fire so I can take them out. We need something
that draws their fire."
in the front or near the bridge?"
where the snipers were active before. I'd need their
pattern. Hey, Stjepan!" He stood and walked over
to the youth, who turned towards him and away from an
ever growing group of men. "Tell me everything
about the snipers on the other side. How many did they
kill? Where? What time of day? Can you show me?"
" Stjepan looked over at Dan, who
remained sitting in the corner, going through the plan,
step by step. They only had one chance to get out, and
a handful of untrained people to execute the plan.
you tell us your plan first? Ivo can show you,"
pointing to a man who seemed to be in his twenties and
who nodded at Vadim. "He speaks English, too, but
most of the men said they won't do anything that crazy
unless they know what exactly your plan is. How are
you going to attack them? That sounds completely insane."
heard the term disproportionate warfare? We'll do that.
Guerrilla tactics, if you like. We'll build a trap and
hurt them. When they move in to crush us, we'll hurt
them more, confuse them, and get you people out. But
first, I need to deal with the snipers. And that means,
I need to know where they are. To do that, you need
to show me their work."
" Stjepan looked more intimidated than convinced,
when Dan came sauntering over.
is right, and you better do what he tells you. If he
says he needs to see the sniper's activities, then he
does." Dan smiled, back to easy-going, friendly
Mad Dog. Soothing frayed nerves and knitting a troop
together, like he had done, back in another country
and life. "In the meantime, I explain my plan in
detail. I do it once, because we are running out of
time, but then I need to get everyone to gather here,
who is capable of moving around. Everyone, you get me?
Except for those who are too old and infirm, or too
young, or wounded. We'll only make it if we all pull
together. Is that clear?" He was still smiling,
but there was no room for debate. "We got to start
now, so I suggest Ivo goes out with Vadim, who
then deals with the snipers, while we start with what
I've just explained." He looked from one of the
men to the other. Drawn faces, hardened, no hope in
their eyes. "Any questions?" Silence, until
a voice piped up from the ground. A girl's voice.
turned towards the teenage girl, Sanya, nodding to her
with a smile, as she stood up. Still no expression in
her face. "Go right ahead."
I help killing them?"
glanced at Vadim for a second, because he had suddenly
lost his voice, and no idea what to answer. The way
she said it, the way those dead eyes looked at him,
that way spoke too much of what had happened to her
and he felt his throat constrict.
looked at her, and the thought of Anoushka was there,
but only for a moment. They should have killed her when
they'd done whatever they'd done. He didn't even want
to speculate. Vadim gave her a nod. "You will help
killing them. Every little thing we do will help defeat
them. It's clockwork. Every piece helps move another
piece. If the machine works and we can do that, we will
win. And survive. We will hurt them, and we'll kill
several of them, but most of all", he gave a grin,
"we will make them very, very afraid."
nodded with absolute seriousness. "Good."
Then she crouched back down on the floor, leaning against
atmosphere had somehow changed, because the young man,
Ivo, stepped forward without being prompted again. "Show
you." He said to Vadim, while the others turned
to Dan, who started to explain exactly what their plan
was, with Stjepan translating.
gave Dan a long glance and a wave, picked up the Dragunov,
then followed the young man. It was as he'd assumed.
Moving carefully through tunnels, with Ivo pointing
out where some of the victims lay in the snow, blood
sprays visible that had frosted over and, most crucially,
bullet holes in walls and pavement. Something of a map
formed in Vadim's head.
took position in one of the houses, perching in a window
close to where two of the victims had been felled, and
scanned the enemy position through his own sniper scope.
He was relatively sure what area they were roughly in.
Two snipers, if he wasn't wrong, with overlapping areas
that they covered - the entry and middle of the town,
and he assumed one was considerably higher than the
other, judging from the angle that his shots came in.
Both snipers had to be in touch to coordinate - probably
by radio - or there might be a conflict of which of
them would shoot if something went on in their respective
kill zones. That factor was hard to determine, and guesswork
alone, but he assumed the one on higher ground was an
old hand, always going for the perfect shot, while the
other was brasher, probably younger, and less well-trained,
less disciplined, because it was him that had made a
lot more holes into the pavement and walls than in people.
Maybe the brash sniper was younger, had to prove himself
- too eager to show his worth, his shooting was more
machismo than military. The old hand needed to go first,
the other one could be made to make a mistake.
nodded to Ivo. "We're going back."
you not shooting?"
Won't be able to see them. They need to shoot first.
But that's just a waiting game. It all happens here."
Vadim tapped his temple. "Like chess playing, you
in the meantime, had managed to convince the assembled
men of his plan, and they'd gone out to gather everyone
who was able bodied enough to help carry out what needed
to be done. When Vadim returned, there were about fifty
people in the back of the department store, getting
divided up by ability into groups. Dan was sending the
first ones off to scour the remaining houses, ruins
and cellars for anything soapy, preferably washing powder,
and to find bottles and rags as well. A group remained,
including Sanya and Stjepan, who were willing to do
the far more dangerous task of siphoning the petrol
from the car wrecks.
out what you were looking for?" Dan turned towards
Vadim, a couple of lads standing close to him.
considering whether I kill the bitches or try to just
cripple them." Vadim glanced around. "One
of them is good. The other's just a good shot."
He began to walk, thinking, expecting Dan to follow
him, and he did, after signalling to the lads to wait
a moment for him. "The young guy operates the front
of the town, that way." Vadim pointed. "If
we get one of the mannequins through the tunnel into
this house, that window, and open the shutters, it will
be irresistible to him. He'll shoot. If I'm in the house
there", he pointed again. "I can locate the
muzzle flash and see him take out the mannequin. I'll
shoot him once he moves
even if he's just going
for a piss or a hot tea. I'm thinking I could shoot
him in the legs. That could upset the old guy, further
up the mountain, and he'll try to snipe me. Now, if
we rig a sniping position and fake a muzzle flash
or something, like a glint he can see, he'll try to
shoot me, and I'll be able to locate him, and take out
that bastard, too. It's not
but the best I can come up with, right now."
sounds like a brilliant plan to me." Dan grinned,
waving Stjepan over. "Time to get it in place straight
away, because we can't siphon the petrol before you
haven't at least taken out the closest sniper."
Turning to the kid, he explained to him what Vadim needed,
a dummy, dressed up, and taken to the house Vadim had
indicated. Stjepan nodded, and waved to another couple
of guys to help him.
take Rocky with you, and set everything up, while I
get those two clever clogs over there," Dan pointed
at the two lads, "to rig up the speaker system.
They claim they know how to do it and that they know
where to find usable batteries."
course - in the cars." Vadim tipped his head in
a mock salute and Dan grinned. "Operation Sniper
Duel has a 'go', then." He gave a laugh and nodded
towards the kids. "And now we'll kill a man who
thinks himself a god."
knew about the god complex of snipers - he'd done it
often enough. This was a young god that still got very
excited when pulling the trigger. He helped the kids
carry part off the mannequin to the house, watched them
dress it, as he peered through the shutters. The angle
was right, he was sure.
When you open the shutter, do it from here." Vadim
kept against the wall, indicating a very careful motion
to push the shutters apart, with a discarded broom stick.
"Don't expose yourselves. Not even for a second.
The shutter movement will wake him up - if he sees anything
that looks human - any shape, he'll fire. You guys got
watches? Check the time. And give me thirty minutes
before you do anything. Okay?"
nodded eagerly, showed him their watches, and he made
sure they actually ran, and found an encouraging, 'fatherly'
smile somewhere, knowing they trusted him to take out
the death from afar. There was something grim about
it, though. These kids had grown old before their time,
and what should have been a kid's game was now war.
"Good. After the shot, stay exactly where you are,
I'll pick you up and we return together."
then headed off, out of the building, through the backyard,
found a window that had never had any shutters. He pulled
two tables close, ignored the devastation inside, and
lay flat on the tables, legs spread, rifle against his
cheek, peering through the scope. Waiting. Breathing.
Twenty minutes gone. Reaching with his mind to the young
man he'd kill, trying to prompt him to move. Scanning
the mountain opposite, where, somewhere in the snow,
in the undergrowth, the sniper had to be, alert, waiting
for his shot.
breathed, slow and steady, damned cold. Twenty-seven.
He blinked, forced himself to focus, but he covered
the whole area. Twenty-eight. Vadim smiled to himself
to relax, imagined he was a tree, with roots reaching
for the stone beneath, taking root in the hill, deeper
and deeper, imagined his breath flow.
shot rang out, the flash almost directly opposite. Vadim
peered through the scope. And a second shot, from the
same location. He saw him, saw something move. He'd
likely been covered under a white plane or something
that blended into the snow, but here he was, the shape
of a man, head, shoulders, rifle. Vadim's eyes narrowed,
but he continued to watch, saw the enemy move, raise
the rifle - likely a Dragunov in these parts - and get
up. Damned difficult shot, but Vadim's finger touched
the trigger now, found the point, then, calm, collected
and deeply focused, he tapped the trigger, twice. His
vision blurred, he didn't have a spotter to confirm
the kill, didn't matter, because the snow showed the
man in stark contrast, still moving, squirming, blood
gushing around the snow. Likely screaming, but Vadim
could only imagine the scream. Too well. Thigh wound.
Godhood had ended.
closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them to check
the mountain, maybe the old guy lost his composure now.
Nothing. No movement. Instead, people came rushing up
the mountain. Three. Vadim gave a grim laugh, and picked
them out like deer, the snow offered very little protection.
First one received one of the cleanest head shots Vadim
had ever achieved, the next one rushed for cover and
was hit somewhere in the chest, the third dove for cover
behind a tree, and Vadim could imagine the pure terror
that had to course through the chetnik's veins. He reloaded,
adjusted the rifle just a little, getting a better feeling,
and placed a bullet at the guy's feet, right next to
the tree. The man lost his courage, went for a mad dash,
and was struck down like lightning by the next shot.
Dan had sent the kids off to scour the department store,
and anywhere else they could think of, looking for cables,
speakers, and electrical equipment. He'd been adamant
that they were not to venture outside, but stay within
the cellar system. He had only been drawing up plans
and positions for about twenty minutes, when they returned,
arms full with car batteries, rolls of cables and everything
else he could have dreamed of. "Where the fuck
did you find that?"
lads were looking at him with undisguised pride at their
resourcefulness. "Milan's uncle had garage."
They even produced a soldering iron and Dan began to
grin like a lunatic once more. Just what he'd needed.
that case, I let you get on with it. You know what we
need, loudspeakers. I'll get the megaphone and the cassette
player from the car, plus the tape, when Rocky's dealt
with the snipers." It was hard at first to remember
the false name, but became easier with every step towards
the attack. Easier, but also more anxious, as he kept
listening for sound of shots outside, and heard them,
waited, trusting Vadim's skills. He'd seen those skills
in action, on the other side, now they would work for
lads scampered off again, hastily talking to each other,
and Dan wondered for just a moment if they were friends,
or brothers, cousins, or maybe simply two of the last
upstairs, heard another shot, and the wall next to him
had grown a hole. He rolled off the tables, which made
his fresh wound protest, and he cursed. The old hand.
A friendly tap, just to keep him on his toes. The other
sniper had shown him he knew from where he'd shot, but
couldn't get him from that angle. Good. Vadim gave a
short laugh. "Damn, comrade. I'd love to play with
you. Guess I will."
finished his work, drawing out the positions, when the
first scouring-hunters were coming back. Some laden
with bottles, others carrying bundles of rags, and yet
others brought remains of broken-up furniture. The second
group, armed with bowls, bottles and tubing, was eager
to go out to the car wrecks, but Dan held them back.
Explaining they were not going to venture out before
Rocky had returned and declared the area as safe as
possible. He, however, was not listening to his own
advice, and when the two lads returned, carrying every
speaker they had been able to find in the short space,
he explained to them where he needed the music system
to be set up. After telling the others they'd need a
lot more burning material, he flashed a grin when he
told them he'd be outside for a second.
one reacted, because he was at the doorframe before
anyone cottoned on. The truck was close, all he needed
to do was crawl or sprint to it without getting shot.
Easy. Shit. No more than a couple of steps, but he knew
the score. Still, if he waited it might be too late,
darkness would come soon, and he could possibly help
draw out whoever Vadim still needed. He got onto his
knees, then further down, and belly-crawled across the
frozen ground. His jacket as non-descript as the ground,
concrete and dust, debris and dirt, and he'd just have
was about to pack the rifle, when he saw something move
down below. What the fuck? He cursed, tried to get a
better look at what was moving, thought it was somebody
crawling. Fuck. He took the rifle, raced upstairs, looking
for a window that faced the right direction. Breathless
with tension, he knocked the glass out of one, only
to find his vision blocked by the roof. Fuck. Stay down,
he thought. Get the fuck away. Hoping he'd seen this
wrong and it wasn't Dan. His plan gone to hell with
this. Fuck. Fuck! He climbed out of the window, moved
onto the roof, exposing himself, yes, what the fuck,
down on his belly, gazing out, saw something move up
on that hill, and had hardly lined up the rifle when
he snapped a quick shot, to draw the sniper's attention
if he was unlucky, or wound him, if he was lucky, but
at least draw him away from Dan.
shot rang out, a roof tile exploded at the same time,
next to Vadim's shoulder, and Vadim moved the muzzle,
a fraction of a degree, and shot, almost blind. Awaiting
the impact any moment, imagined a headshot like a quick
burn and then darkness. He didn't breathe, awaited his
death, tried to see the other man, vision blurred with
stress and sweat running in his eyes. Nothing. No burn.
No darkness. No exploding tiles. Then, he made out the
rifle, and behind it, the slumped form of a man. Not
shooting. He didn't move, didn't squirm, didn't fire
rolled over onto his back, slid down a little, hoped
that he hadn't been wrong, but the stress came in full
force. He moved a little to the side, peered again,
located the man, and shot him once more. No movement.
Corpse. "Fuck me", he muttered. "That
had heard the shots and remained absolutely still. When
nothing more happened he moved again. Still nothing.
Not a sound, and he increased his speed, feeling the
perceived safety like a dram of whisky warming his belly.
He was at the truck, squeezed through the window, and
ripped out everything that he needed. Using the all-tool
he always wore in his belt kit, he got the stereo out,
pocketed the tape, and proceeded to unscrew the megaphone,
while sweating in the cold. It took no more than five
to ten minutes before he crawled back out again. Crouching,
waiting, but nothing happened, and he legged the two
steps across the pavement and back inside, laden with
everything he needed.
dizzy with rage, climbed back into the room, down the
stairs, so angry he felt his pulse painfully in the
cut in his side, and he ran down, moving like during
an exercise when every step, everything was timed. Rushed
out and into the other house, up the stairs to get to
the kids, who stared at him when he suddenly appeared.
"He's dead. Let's go." Only then did he see
the mannequin, cleanly executed in head and torso, plastic
twisted in the summer dress she wore. Realized it must
have scared the kids shitless to see the mannequin being
shot like that and toppled, the force kicking the figure
over a yard back and to the ground. "Let's go!",
he repeated, sharper, and drove them before him as he
stormed back, seething with rage.
had made it inside, handing the treasures over to one
of the lads. The kid vanished with everything they needed,
and Dan turned to his bergan, fishing for one of his
few remaining fags.
came back in, seeing Dan in the corner, starting to
smoke. He mustered enough control to hand the Dragunov
to one of the kids, wordlessly, then crossed the distance
to Dan, who was looking at him, smiling, but Vadim was
in so much anger he didn't know what he was doing. He
wanted to attack Dan, punch him, kick him, make sure
he was alright, instead, he pushed him towards the wall
with both hands against his shoulders, and Dan was far
too taken by surprise to react in time. Losing the cigarette
out of the corner of his mouth, as he was pinned effectively
against the wall. "You stupid bastard!" Vadim
shouted at him, switching into Russian. "You bastard
almost got me fucking killed! Is that your solution
to the problem? Getting me offed?"
Eyes wide, Dan stared at him, uncomprehending. Not even
getting at first that Vadim had switched to Russian
and that a couple of the men across the room had looked
In his fucking kill zone? I wasn't ready for the shot.
I wasn't fucking ready, and you move right into his
area, you stupid fuck. Bastard almost got both of us,
if I hadn't drawn his fire. The shot was this close.
Closer than you are now." Vadim was staring right
in Dan's eyes, seething with rage. And Dan stared back.
Dark eyes transfixed in those pale ones.
didn't move. Didn't shout. Didn't fight, just moistened
his suddenly dry lips. "Don't speak Russian."
Quietly. No more. Immobile. Wanted to say a lot more
and couldn't. Too sick in the stomach. He couldn't
even find a quip. No 'but it worked', and neither rage
to counter the fury.
slowly closed his eyes and hung his head, defeated by
the calm, that sick feeling to his stomach, touching
Dan and being so fucking angry and scared, as the fear
suddenly overwhelmed the anger, and he shuddered, feeling
want to hit me again?" Dan murmured, still not
moving. "You want to get it out of your system
this time? You want to punish me for
hesitated, closing his eyes, not giving a fuck where
they were, who was there, and what the hell had happened.
And he finally said it, because it could have been too
late already. "
for a betrayal I never committed?"
Dan. Dan and Katya. Vadim wanted to move away and keep
touching Dan, wanted to claw into him, wanted to be
held, wanted to break his neck and just rest his head
against Dan's shoulder. "Don't
not now. You did it. You both just did it. You were
fucking my wife while they broke my mind. Katya
always had to have my men
" He swallowed,
shaking his head. "But you
why did you do
movement. "Because she blackmailed me." Facts,
how pitiful they sounded in the grey light of day. "The
price to pay for delivery." Breathed in, eyes still
closed, "the story. Your father." So much
more to say, but when it came down to it, what else
was there? "She needed a sperm donor. There and
then. And I had come begging for a favour." The
hardest thing he'd ever done in his life, but that,
that was classified information. Finally a movement.
One shoulder shrugged, when Dan's eyes opened and he
whispered, "fucking Krasnoradas and just taking
what they want. Aye?"
coiled back like hit in the face, staggering, the sparse
words suggested the story, and the last thing a punch
to the gut. Rape. What he'd done, what Katya had done,
what they'd both done. To Dan. He stood there, breathless,
wordless, unable to absorb the shock, mind just blank
with fear and nausea, and he noticed he was shaking.
Bonkers, going insane. He shook his head, tried to force
himself back towards a place he could deal with, felt
helpless like he'd just awoken from a nightmare. One
of the bad ones.
was looking at him. Silent for a long time, until that
shoulder shrugged once more. "It doesn't matter.
Not now." He wanted to say 'you never gave me a
chance', but he didn't. All that had been done had been
done, and everything that needed to be said had been
said. Accusations were pointless. "All that matters
is to survive." Still just looking at Vadim, Dan
offered a small smile. "And I'm sorry. I guess
I was too fucking cocky out there. Not used to working
as a team."
nodded, dumbstruck, inhaled deeply, then managed to
think clearly enough to sit down in the corner, reach
for one of the water bottles, and drink. Trying to wash
away the taste of stale adrenaline and bitter fear.
stick to the plan next time",
he murmured, voice raw.
nodded, the spell broken when Vadim moved away and he
stooped down, looking for his fag that had rolled to
the side. Relighting what was left, he inhaled deeply.
"Time for the troops to siphon the petrol?"
Vadim looked at the other people, who regarded him with
more hostility now. And wasn't that ironic. "Wounded
the first sniper, killed three guys that were trying
to help him. I doubt he'll live, unless they get him
out. Thigh wound. Looked nasty. The other one is dead."
nodded again. "Damn good work. I get them to get
going now." But Stjepan stopped him before he reached
wrong?" Stjepan glanced at Vadim. "Problems?
Did he speak Russian? We don't understand, thought you
are." Dan didn't even twitch at the lie. Neither
of them was, technically. "It's a long story, and
we really don't have time for that. Just
a lot of history. Many years." Turning his head
to glance at Vadim, still in the corner, Dan managed
a small smile to calm the kid and the rest of them.
"We saved each other's lives, just that out there,
a few minutes ago, he saved mine, because I was a dumbfuck."
brows creased, the last word didn't seem to make sense,
but Dan just slapped his shoulder. "Don't worry.
All that counts is that he's killed both snipers and
a few of the others, so we can go out and continue.
Let's get as much petrol as we can, but be careful.
Doesn't mean they haven't got anyone else who could
blast you to kingdom come." Nodding towards the
outside, "besides, the last thing you want is for
them to get an idea of what we are planning, right?"
nodded. "I understand." Even though he didn't
look as if he did, but it was of no consequence as long
as he did what needed to be done.
with you, then. I'll rig the bridge in the meantime."
raised a hand. "Dan. Wait till it gets dark. Or
" glancing out of the window. "Darker
than this. If they have a decent shot or two, they can
still take you out, and I
" am shaking. "I'll
cover you. But wait."
turned back, regarding Vadim for a moment. "I've
done scarier shit than this." Looking through the
window, nailed shut, with several gaps in places, but
he always stayed just that step within cover. Force
of habit. "If it is too dark I can't do it. I need
to get into the foundations below, or it won't get destroyed."
Shaking his head, "I have one stick of C4, if it
isn't just right it does fuck all." He turned back
to Vadim, regarding him for another moment. "What
do you suggest instead? Rigging the buildings for burning?
You can do that without me. Checking the sound system?
The lads are working on it, and we can't work on the
Molotovs before the others return."
nodded, hands closed into fists, because he didn't trust
them to be steady. Which was scary. He wasn't sure he
could shoot now, and he knew he had to pull it together.
Dan did it with his fucked legs all the time, so why
couldn't he? "I'll have a look at the buildings.
Got an idea for the layout. There's some wood around,
broken-up furniture. It should burn well. If I take
that first shooting position, I should cover
you when you do the bridge." He slowly got to his
feet again, jaw muscles tense. "Coming down",
he murmured. "Getting there. Just
looked behind him, but everyone seemed to be busy. Then
back at Vadim, and it finally dawned on him what he
was actually looking at. "Got a moment spare?"
Not going anywhere."
Walking a couple of steps away, Dan looked behind him,
expecting Vadim to follow, as he picked his way through
the rubble into the next room, smaller than the first,
and then another, which led to what he'd been looking
for. Back in the far corner were what had been changing
rooms, and he steered towards the furthest one, which
luckily still had most of its door. Holding it open
walked through, hands still clenched, tension around
his shoulders, neck, back, and he moved against the
wall, looking at Dan. Expecting anything. More nasty
revelations, a full blown attack, a heart-to-heart talk,
as English-speakers called it.
closed the door behind them, the stall was small, just
enough space for two large men to turn. Facing Vadim,
he looked at him for a moment. "There's something
I really fucking missed in the last weeks." Cocking
his head, he let out a small huff. "In fact, it's
two things, but I really don't think it's the time and
place for my usual favourite."
raised his head, looked at him squarely, but calm, on
the outside at least, lips moving into a small smile
as he gazed at Dan, who stepped closer, resting a hand
on his shoulder, then another. Pressing in, a mirror
image of earlier, and yet nothing like it. "But
" Dan's voice had dropped, "I
think I missed this even more. Must be getting old."
He let his head move forward, until his lips touched
Vadim's, and his own opened, inviting in return.
hands moved to Dan's waist, pulled him closer, lips
opening as well, hands flat against Dan's back, inviting
the taste and smell. Dan. Had missed him too much, despite
the anger that had kept him away, that had even kept
the need and lust away. "I
his lips away a bit, breaking the kiss, "can't
can't see you die, okay? Don't take any more
needless risks. I can't see it. Don't make me."
can't not take any risks, though." Murmured,
Dan smiled, so close, Vadim's face was a blur before
his eyes. "But I give you my word I won't die.
Just won't. Okay?" Kissing once more, didn't matter
that they were scratchy and stubbly, hadn't changed
their clothing for too many hours and the only water
that touched them had gone down their throat. Didn't
matter. Just Vadim. Too long, but it was all good now.
Had to be. After all, the truth was an old acquaintance
of his. "Just promise the same."
fool." Tender, and Vadim took the back of Dan's
head and pressed him in, hugged him tight and reassuring,
breathing deeply and relaxing in that hug. "We'll
go on R&R after this. Talk
talk about things.
Only if you want."
on where we're going and how much talking you want to
subject me to." Dan chuckled, burying his face
for a moment in Vadim's neck. "I'm inclined, right
now, to let you choose the destination."
without snow, and with as little people as possible",
Vadim murmured and kissed Dan's neck, throat, running
his fingers through that long hair. "Sorry for
being such a bastard, lately."
must be the understatement of the year." Dan figured
he could either make things as grave as they really
were, or take the piss with that stone dry humour of
his. No point, right now, to prod at wounds. Dima. Katya.
Betrayal and accusations. And when it came down to it,
he would never throw the first stone, he certainly wasn't
to turn into a self-righteous prick. "I figure
it's because my daughter is prettier than your daughter."
It was the first thing that came to his mind and as
crazy as it was, he just said it. Tentatively grinning
at Vadim. The irreverent squaddie lurking beyond the
surface, and Mad Dog just about to stick his head back
slapped Dan's shoulder and moved away. "Babies
are always cute - and
I haven't seen Anoushka
in a long while."
I will never see mine." Dan readjusted his jacket.
studied him. "Do you want to? And - why not?"
she'd cry 'rape' if I did." Noticed too late what
he'd said, Dan countered immediately with a shrug. It
still hurt, like fuck it did, but hell, there was no
time, and he was glad for it. Better to fight for survival
than dwell on the shit. "Anyway, don't want to
think about it now. Take me on R&R, aye? Back to
where we were before, or a similar place. Sea, sky,
sun, and sex 24/7. Deal?"
nodded, thought what the fuck had Katya done to Dan,
seemed she'd covered all her bases. That was very much
like her, actually, she'd fight tooth and nail if Dan
would try to claim the child. Or just his rights as
father. The thought still made him reel, but
he found it less alien, less painful than before. Or
maybe he was just numb from his 'duel'. "Make that
12/7 - getting old."
let out a short laugh. "Okay, I let you off, but
only if you agree to 16/7. Eight hours of sleep should
driving a hard bargain. But yeah, eight hours should
and we can take the sex slow, I suppose."
towards the door, Dan knew they had to get out there.
The rumblings of the shelling would start soon, and
if they were right, the chetniks would try and take
the town that night. And succeed, no doubt. Unless they
attacked first. "Last kiss before the 'fun' starts?"
Vadim moved in to kiss him again, and this was one of
their old kisses, tender, lips open, leisurely, with
just enough longing to show through, but tenderness
above all. Complete ease, and Vadim broke into a grin.
"Let's go, before they see their heroes are gay."
would not be a good idea. You do remember the
whole thing about this shit here?" Dan winked,
"five hundred years ago? Turks and all that? Bosniaks,
chetniks, Muslims, Christians, genocide, and what have
you? Those out there might belong to the 'let's stone
those gay bastards' faction." He flashed a nasty
grin, without a trace of humour. "But I'm still
going to save their arses, because that girl, Sanya,
" he trailed off and shrugged. "Let's
just say, I've done worse for less reasons."
laughed. "Aye. Funny, really. Dima had some good
words for why he was with the Serb brothers, but if
the tables were turned and they'd slaughter Serbian
" He frowned. "I don't understand
this war, Dan. That's really the main problem. I don't
see the point. Why they are doing this, and the way
they are doing this, and why nobody does anything
Again, he ran his hand through Dan's hair. "But
doing this here
is very satisfying."
the hair ruffling?" Dan grinned, "and for
the records, I don't understand this shit either. It's
like they were looking for an excuse to take up in arms.
'My lands. No, mine, originally yours. No, ours.' Five
hundred years, used as an excuse for slaughter? Bullshit."
He shrugged, "I think I stick to the hair ruffling.
At least I get that."
history is just an excuse for incompetence at getting
along with each other." Vadim kissed Dan's brow.
"You know, it's childish to stick to grudges in
the middle of all this, aye?"
Dan smiled, taking any sting out before it appeared,
"I don't think you quite have the right to hold
any grudge, except for
" he shrugged, "right
or not, who the fuck cares, aye? We just need to get
out of here alive."
meant, generally." Vadim gave him a long glance
and smiled. "Let's go and get them. Bastards don't
stand a chance in hell."
Dan laughed, walking out of the stall, "not a chance
at all, and if no one has ever told you that you are
a fucking maniac then something's wrong." Dan fished
for another of his precious cigarettes.
word they used was 'hero', Dan. Which comes down to
the same thing, I guess."
and most heroes are dead. Damn lucky I was never a hero,
Yanks and the Baroness might call you that."
pulled a face between a wry grin and something indecipherable.
"Anyway, it'll get dark in about an hour. I go
check the rigging of the sound system. You going to
set up the 'torches'?"
parted when they got back to the main ground floor room,
and Dan climbed up the stairs to check on the lads who'd
been working tirelessly. They proudly showed off the
system with speakers against every open window, carefully
placed so the opponents wouldn't have seen the moment.
They urged Dan to try the rigging, and he was amazed
to hear 'Foxy Lady' on the lowest setting, ready to
get blasted across the land. Confident that this part
of the plan was working out well, he returned to the
ground floor, where the second group was beginning to
trickle back in.
ventured out to inspect the buildings, and, with the
help of some of the men, prepared the houses on the
other side of the village to be burnt - gathering broken
furniture, duvets, firewood, carpets, and other stuff
on big piles, setting everything up so they could burst
into flames within minutes. There had been no sniper
activity, he was assured, when he kept looking back
towards where the chetniks camped, and they regarded
him as a hero, not knowing that it was a whim of fate
that it wasn't him who'd done the sniping on the other
was setting the remaining volunteers to work, making
them measure petrol and soap powder, filling the bottles
and stuffing a rag into the bottle as wick. Once he
was content that all was working the way it should,
he rounded up the men who carried weapons, checking
over the amount of ammo they had. Telling them to be
prepared, and to check and re-check their weapons while
making themselves acquainted with the plan he'd drawn
out, and which was relayed to every man and woman.
was getting kitted out, when Vadim returned. "Everything
sorted?" Dan looked up while strapping his belt
kit on, and moving the weapon over his shoulder, the
C4 and the detonators safely stashed in his jacket pockets.
nodded and was about to wind a rag around his head to
hide his pale hair and part of his features. "Aye.
When do we start?"
need you right now. Have to get the explosives onto
the bridge. Thank fuck it's a fairly modern steel construction.
Gives me something to climb on, aye?" Dan grinned,
"thought you could keep the uglies from me, if
need be, but I sure as fuck hope no one sees me doing
my acrobatic tricks, or the surprise effect is shot
madness, Dan, you know that."
I know." No grin, for once he was serious, but
the next moment Dan was back to being the irreverent
bastard. "But who else could do it? And how else
could it be done? Seems that today is the time for some
'heroic' bullshit after all."
nodded, numb, mute, because the only thing he could
say was 'I'll go insane if you die', and he lowered
his gaze, forcing himself to breathe, focused on the
dull throbbing pain from the cut in his side. Dan was
still alive. He'd made it. He would make it. And he
couldn't distract Dan with the dark flood of fear that
welled up inside again.
that's settled then." Dan nodded, flashed another
grin that he didn't feel, but fuck, he'd gone through
worse shit. "I get someone to lead us through the
underground. Now we just have to hope that they take
the bait that we'll throw to them, so that my brilliant
plan is going to work and they focus all of their artillery
and heavy fire on the front of the town." He waved
over to Stjepan, who sorted a guide for them. "Good
thing their tanks are shit, aye?" Dan glanced at
Vadim as they descended into the first cellar to get
across town towards the riverbank. "The Molotovs
should get them out of their tin cans like rats being
smoked out of a box."
And the town should limit visibility and movability."
But even then, taking on a tank was madness.
were walking for about fifteen minutes, Dan and Vadim
taking turns marking the way with chalk they'd found
earlier, and Dan was carefully taking note of the time.
They reached a door that would lead them outside and
right to the banks. All they had to do now was hope
the night was falling swiftly, and no one expected movement
right where they were. It was impossible to cross the
river, the waters had taken too many lives and the swell
was treacherous, so they might not be watched. Carefully
and silently creeping outside, their guide had the order
to wait for them, Dan glanced at Vadim and nodded. Wherever
he chose to take position to check out the bridge, Dan
would trust in him and his ability as a sniper.
gave a hand sign, 'all clear', then looked around for
a good sniping position to cover the bridge, setting
up the old friend Dragunov in one of the buildings,
pulled away from the window, so the rifle's outline
wouldn't betray him. He settled, careful not to disturb
the wound, but whatever he did, any motion hurt. At
least he could hope that two snipers was all they'd
towards the bridge, Dan remembered all those attempts
of his to get the Mujas to do the same. No, they'd always
refused, rather let themselves get shot than letting
themselves get 'humiliated' by crawling in the dust.
He did, though, and found nothing humiliating about
slithering through the frozen mud and across the icy
ground. Trying not to think of how many chetniks might
be out to spot him, instead trusting on his outfit,
dirty camo, thrown together, and soiled by their escape
and their fights. And relying on Vadim, once more on
spotted Dan's movements when he got out into the open.
The crawling man in his crosshairs, he couldn't help
but think that on the other side, another man might
be seeing the exact same thing - crosshairs and all
- and that one finger was all that separated this precious,
vulnerable body from death. He let the sights trail
up, towards the dark where the chetniks were, trying
to spot any movement, any reflection, any cigarette
being lit and giving a position away. Every now and
then checking on Dan's progress.
made it to the foundation of the bridge without any
worrying sounds, nor movement from anywhere. Sweating,
despite the cold, adrenaline coursed through every part
of his body and mind, like a man on speed.
done", murmured Vadim, seeing Dan at least partially
in cover now from the bridge, but at the same time more
exposed than ever, because the bridge would be protected,
if there was any sniper left. Dan was in his kill zone,
and Vadim knew exactly that any sniper worth his salt
couldn't possibly miss this shot.
had to ignore the fear and the knowledge that any second
he could be spotted. Entirely possible they still had
snipers covering the bridge, but he had to pretend that
it wasn't the case, or he'd shit himself. Literally.
up the steel girders, he gritted his teeth and ignored
the pain as much as a possible sniper. In fact, if he
wasn't doing right now what he did, he'd probably piss
himself with laughter at how much he was ignoring. Still,
he made it halfway up, trying to judge if he had to
climb anymore, when he froze, clinging to a girder,
listening to a noise he couldn't categorise.
saw movement. Damn. Staring through the scope, he saw
people move about, and they seemed to prepare to get
going. Which meant they had no idea that Dan was where
he was. He forced himself to breathe, watching the vague
motions that seemed to have a purpose. But they weren't
moving yet. The assault wasn't happening, and he would
only guess if he'd shoot now.
there, Dan forced himself to breathe and to remain absolutely
still, until the noise ceased, and he checked his watch,
fingers stiff and aching from clinging to the frozen
metal. Gloves or not, his body felt its years, and he
cursed himself more than he cursed those damned chetniks.
If only someone back in camp, or anywhere else, actually
gave a shit. But no time to think about that, he had
to get one level higher. Forcing himself to climb once
more, he reached the most promising place for the explosives,
right beneath the surface of the bridge. Hidden from
view from the top, but visible to anyone from the side,
he concentrated on getting the C4 pliable in this goddamned
cold. Forced to take his gloves off to knead the plastic
explosive, he used his thigh muscles to stay safely
on the metal, freezing his bollocks off on the icy steel
in more than just the proverbial sense. Finally able
to fix the plastic explosives into place, he set the
detonator, checking the radio control device that he'd
taken from the dead chetnik. Confident everything was
set up perfectly, he glanced towards Vadim's direction.
made it so far, now he 'just' had to make it back.
kept his eyes on Dan, because the chetniks clearly had
something else on their minds, and he allowed himself
to watch Dan work on the charge, high above the freezing
cold water. Then back to where the chetniks were getting
ready to move. He wanted to kill every single one of
them. Anger, hatred, but above all, protectiveness tightening
gathered all his wits about him once more, concentrating
and focussing on nothing but the stealthiest descend
he could manage. Moving slowly, using mostly his upper
body strength. At long last making it down to the ground,
he once again lowered himself onto his belly, crawling
back the same way he'd come.
trailed his movements for as long as he dared, scope
then moving back to the chetniks, then back to Dan,
who moved with utmost caution, skilful, slowly, controlled,
every movement where it had to be. Vadim swallowed,
but forced himself to concentrate, just in case something
went wrong, but nothing did. For once, it was either
luck, or the fact Vadim really had killed their only
two snipers, or the chetniks were just too damned busy
organising their final attack to take the town.
made it back to the door, which their guide opened,
and for a while, he remained on the ground inside the
building, head against the closed door, and just breathing,
eyes closed. This shit had got more to him than it would
have, ten years ago. Suddenly it was about more than
just his measly little life. It was about his lover,
his family, his friends
damned be the baggage
of a fulfilled life.
came down the stairs once Dan had vanished from his
view, and he leaned the Dragunov into the corner, then
offered Dan a hand, pulling him up to stand. "Get
up." Vadim opened his parka and placed it around
Dan's shoulders. "They are getting ready. So should
for the additional warmth, Dan nodded. "Give me
a sec." Looking for the water bottle on his belt
kit, he fiddled in his coat pocket for the pain killers,
and swallowed a handfulNot giving a shit for once, what
Vadim saw or not. "Best get running, then. Took
us fifteen minutes to get here, bet we can cut it down
glanced at the water bottle Not happy about seeing that,
but he'd always known that Dan's legs were giving him
trouble. He just hoped they wouldn't give out in this
war. After that - they'd need to think about how to
fix this problem. "Sure. You lead." He slapped
Dan on the shoulder, because he didn't want anybody
to see an embrace or a kiss, and he needed to stay focused
in any case.
Dan took a deep breath and glanced at their guide, who
was already moving forward. Falling into a jog, they
made it through rooms, upstairs, downstairs, all by
the light of torches, and as fast as they could. The
painkillers were not working yet, but the adrenaline
was, and at some stage, while crawling through a tunnel
of rubble, Dan gave the parka back to Vadim. "You'll
need it. I'll be moving about."
don't stand a chance resisting, now, do I?"
smiled, shook his head, before they picked up pace again.
slipped back into the parka; he wanted to give Dan warmth,
but again, cuddling was not what their charges expected.
Damn them. And then it struck him that keeping up appearances
- something that he'd always wanted, and therefore always
made him feel weird and exposed when Dan blew their
cover or too clearly showed they were gay - that he
didn't want to do this anymore. He wanted to be able
to do what he pleased. Even, no, especially before heading
off into battle.
were back in the main room of the destroyed department
store in under ten minutes, and the atmosphere that
greeted them was one of fear.
frowned, waved Stjepan over, explaining to him that
he had successfully set the charge, and that the young,
the old and the infirm, and anyone else who couldn't
or wouldn't fight, were supposed to gather in the cellars.
They should stay close to the river bank, waiting for
the chetniks' movement, and cross the bridge once the
guards had been drawn away from the bridge towards the
attack in the front, gaining a headstart to the fighters.
got to the bergan and their kit, strapping it onto himself,
while Vadim did the same, before he gathered everyone
around him, once more going over the plan. They had
to wait until the moment the chetniks attacked, and
not a second before that. The two lads were then to
fire up the deafening music that would disorient the
attackers, while masking any movement on the ground.
That was when those volunteers who had signed up for
the dangerous mission, were to hurry to the designated
buildings and set them alight, thus providing illumination.
The rest, the most courageous of them all, were to throw
Molotov cocktails onto the advancing tanks, to force
the crews out of them once the fire stuck to the metal
and smoked them like kipper. Vadim, their sniper, was
to pick the escaping men out in the light of the burning
buildings. Meanwhile, everyone with a rifle and ammo
would fight out in the front, to draw the chetniks away
from the bridge, so that the young and infirm could
leave the town. Finally, once the fighting was over
and they had all crossed the bridge, Dan would destroy
the construction and render pursuit impossible.
was madness, and at the same time the soundest plan
that might actually work. The two snipers' deaths would
have made the chetniks angry, worried, or maybe extra
careful. In any case, it wouldn't be easy, and they
could only hope that the bastards took the bait of the
crazy attack: in their anger, their bravado, or in their
went through his pockets again, checked the rifle, but
it was clean and functional. "Right. Everybody
in position." He looked at Dan for a long moment
and smiled. "Let's crush the bastards."
stood in front of him, rifle in his hands, adrenaline
pooling in his guts, then rushing through his body,
and he smiled back, taking one step closer, until he
could hold Vadim by his shoulders, and lean in for a
'brotherly' kiss on each cheek. "I love you."
Murmured when his left cheek touched Vadim's. "Whatever
happens." His right touched, and then his left
again. "I'll always love you." Vadim looked
positively stricken, dumbfounded, unable to respond,
yet there was a nod, with lips pressed together, and
jaw muscles taut.
stepped back, turned towards the assembled men and few
women, boys and girls, and nodded.
now, we wait. As Rocky said, everyone to their positions.
The signal is the music, and there is no way you'll
miss that." Gesturing to the two kids who had their
orders, and who immediately ran upstairs.
be in position." Vadim left the building, struggling
with the emotion, fuck, Dan kissing him like that had
shaken him, deeply. He'd needed that touch, that oath,
that everything, but couldn't have responded any other
way. Not in Russian, not in English. Couldn't have just
held on to him for a moment longer. He wanted to hold
him, fuck him, be fucked, he wanted to rest at Dan's
shoulder after sex and think nothing but that they were
both alive. Fuck the war, fuck the past, fuck the money.
He found himself a good position again and peered over
at the chetniks. Yes. They were rolling. Time for the
Dan was leaning against the wall, looking outside through
the carcass of a once grand doorway. He was smoking
a cigarette, carefully shielded from view, eyes peeled
on the movement. Any time now, any time
it was, the telltale sound of a shell before impact,
followed by the first explosion.
He shouted, even though knowing the kids on the top
floor couldn't hear him, but the others did, and as
promised, the very next second there was an almighty
noise. Guitar riffs screamed through the ruined building,
from the top of the roof and screeching across the freezing
night. The first riffs of 'All Along the Watchtower'
were belted out through dozens of loudspeakers, fixed
all along the roof and the destroyed windows of the
grinned fiercely, sucked in a deep lungful of smoke,
before he threw the half-smoked cigarette onto the floor,
discarded as much as the last sane thought, before the
old junky got hit with the full force of his drug again.
Danger. Action. And the ultimate fight for survival,
this time with the most unlikely allies.
for the moment when Hendrix's voice cut in between the
fanatical guitar, he yelled at the top of his lungs,
"Move! Move!" Gesturing for the first section
of his ragged troop to make their way towards the buildings,
and to set them on fire, while he waved at the row of
men and boys, including Stjepan and Sanya, who were
holding the bottles, filled with petrol and soap powder.
Bags, makeshift hold-alls and improvised bandoliers
held their ammo of additional Molotovs.
glanced outside, could sense more than see the confusion.
The tanks seemed to slow their approach, before gathering
speed again. He couldn't hear anything above the noise
of voice, guitar, drums and howling riffs, but he moved
to stand in front of 'his men', the fierce grin back
on his face, shouting at them so they'd hear his words.
"I'll cover you!" And so would the few remaining
others who had rifles. He could see the fear in their
faces, and at the same time their determination. Make
it or die. He'd been there too many times before, and
when he could feel the vibrations through the frozen
ground, he knew the tanks were there and the moment
had come, the attack began.
could see from the corners of his eyes how the brightness
outside from the fire was growing, and he knew it was
He yelled, and grabbed the one Molotov he'd kept for
himself, lighting it as he turned. Knew that no matter
what, he had to take the first step, and he threw himself
outside, rifle in one hand, Molotov in the other. A
shadow, coming out of the building, lobbing the burning
fuel straight onto the first tank, before he raised
the AK and fired a round, while throwing himself to
the side and into relative safety.
was their plan. Out, aim, throw, getting into cover
to arm again, and once more.
could hear the voices behind him, shouting, screaming
at the top of their lungs, to give themselves and each
other courage, as they piled out, following his example,
covered by automatic fire, as much as anyone could cover
those moving, soft targets.
Fire. Unsteady light. Vadim had to force himself to
hold fire until the tank crews exposed themselves, and
they did, once the first tank was burning, the hatch
opened and the enemy started to pile out. Vadim let
them, allowed the first guy to set his feet down before
he shot him in the head. The second came out; reload,
hit. Slumping to the ground with a good part of his
skull missing, he was just a human-shaped piece of darkness
in the flickering light from the fire. The next one
came out, yet another hit. He fired with all the precision
he'd ever trained to have, calm, steady, fire, reload,
every bullet hitting true, while the tension in his
body grew, like he was expecting a miss, or another
catastrophe. He pulled the trigger, and hit another
one who had made it to a corner and had been about to
fire, blindly. Downing him, too. And what a satisfaction
the ground, Dan couldn't look out for anyone, just hoped
the screams he heard were not of his troops, but that
of the chetniks. Seeing the tank crews get out of the
burning vehicles, engulfed in flames and black smoke,
he noticed them getting picked out one after the other,
while corpses began to pile up along the length of the
front of buildings. The flames were still rising, consuming
everything in their way and burning with impossible
heat; thawing the ground and turning the night into
an inferno of death.
whole madness of this insane war of brother against
brother culminated in the burning town, where flames
were moving with ferocious appetite. Jumping out of
control, as much as the chetnik attack had lost any
semblance of order, scattered by a plan that brought
together impossible resources, to fight a battle against
every damned odd.
was shooting at an approaching group of soldiers, watching
the bullets hit flesh, and he felt nothing. Nothing,
just like he never had, even though this time, for the
first time, he felt responsible for 'his' troops, unlike
the Mujas. But for the lives he took? Nothing. Couldn't
afford this luxury, just as Vadim couldn't, who kept
picking out every movement and each enemy.
there were no more tanks nor soldiers coming, and Dan
pulled back inside the building that was nothing but
a crumbling ruin now, close to collapse. "Back!"
he kept yelling, trying to get the surviving fighters'
attention. "Cellars! Into the cellars! Get to the
took a few moments, precious time passed, but he couldn't
spot any more enemies, which was either really good
news, or the most dangerous stage. He lifted the rifle,
slung it across his back and got the decrepit old AK
out. Close quarters with a sniper rifle just didn't
happen. Carefully moving from building to building,
the air was an inferno of heat and smoke, biting like
acid into his lungs. He was careful not to offer a silhouette
or any kind of target, another moment when killing the
enemy snipers first had paid off.
fire had spread, creeping towards the edges of the department
store, and still the music was howling, guitar riffs
tearing into the night and its dark sky, illuminated
red, orange and yellow, as if hell had become manifest
on earth. The heat was becoming unbearable, and yet
Dan stayed, waited, no way he'd leave before Vadim was
back, and he yelled for any survivors to get their arses
into gear and into the cellars, while he checked whatever
he could reach, encountering enemies, and thinking nothing,
absolutely nothing again, as he cleared his way in close
quarters. Knife, when the rifle was too far a range.
AK, when they moved in the distance, until not much
was left. They'd taken out most, and he moved once more
back into the building, which creaked with heat and
distortion. "Vadim!" Yelling into the smoke,
coughing, before he managed to get his jumper in front
of his mouth and nose. "Vadim!"
headed back, giving up cover to run at full force, dashing,
only hoping nobody saw him nor took time for an aimed
shot. Moving like a rabbit, cutting corners where he
could, dashing this way and that, painfully aware of
how exposed he was. Every sudden motion pulled on the
sutured wound, the threads that held it together felt
like they were tightening and digging deeper into his
flesh. In truth, though, he knew it was the strain he
put on the wound that made it try to re-open or tear,
and he didn't want to imagine the swollen bleeding mess
under the bandages. Heading back to the department store
when he heard his name. "Coming!" he shouted,
going straight towards the voice, coughing when he swallowed
smoke. "Get moving!"
nodded, awash with relief, but no oxygen left to answer,
and he reached out for the shape in the thickeing smoke,
catching hold of Vadim's arm, and holding onto. If they
lost track of each other now, it would be fatal.
his way as fast as he could downstairs, to the cellars,
fighting for air, coughing, only slowing for a second
to glance at Vadim when they'd hit the cellars, the
first chalk sign in front of them, and the smoke above.
The music was dulled down there, but even so, Dan could
hear how it was getting distorted, and soon it would
stop, when the flames had taken over this building as
well. "You alright?" Breathless.
leaned against the wall, coughing hard, but nodded,
pressing Dan's hand in what he hoped was a reassuring
gesture. Wiping tears off his face, he nodded again.
nodded as well, clinging to Vadim's hand for another
moment. "No injuries. How's yours?"
hurts when I cough." Vadim grinned, listening and
tried to suppress the coughing.
don't cough!" Flashing an irreverent grin, but
the concern too obvious, Dan pulled on Vadim's hand.
"We have to get going, they should be across the
bridge by now, and if we don't blow the fucking thing
up, there's nothing stopping any surviving bastards
to pursue all of them. Aye?"
Vadim kept his breathing shallow to not trigger another
bout of coughing, and followed, holding the AK in his
free hand. Moving as fast as possibly, trusting Dan
to lead him, who was pulling Vadim behind him.
promise you I'll spoil you head to toe when we get back,
if you hurry up."
spend some time on my middle when we get back unscathed."
middle." Breathing was easier now. Two aging men,
determined to survive against all odds, injuries, knackered,
or not. "You mean your cock?" Dan cast a glance
to the side, grinning, as he made his way across one
cellar and towards another door. The chalk signes leading
a way, without fail, towards the river.
middles. If you must ask." Vadim gave a grin, following,
hearing thankfully nothing up front nor behind, nor,
for that matter, above.
happily take care of your rear middle, when I've
" grinning, Dan pushed the last door open, which
led the back out into the ice cold air, "recovered
myself. Not a spring chicken either."
I can see where you're coming from." Breathing
more deeply now, the smoke acrid in his lungs, but the
cold air was damn nice. Vadim glanced around, trying
to get his bearings.
there." Dan pointed to the bridge, a shape of black
in the night. He could just about make out movement
on top of the bridge, but no sound. Whoever it was,
they were careful. "Best cross the damned thing
and hit the detonator." Getting moving again, falling
into a trot that favoured his good leg, Dan kept glancing
at Vadim, keeping pace, even during the steep climb
towards the bridgehead.
followed on his heels, almost literally. Climbing, the
cold hitting the stress hitting the adrenaline hitting
the pain, one blow after the next, and he had to fight
the dread as it welled up, almost worse now that the
main battle was over. As if they couldn't possibly hope
to make it. Had he ever felt like that before? Had that
Spetsnaz captain felt this way? He couldn't remember.
Dan kept climbing up the steep path, and he kept moving,
and kept looking at Vadim, waiting, urging, walking
beside him, before him. One more step, just another,
until they made it onto the main bridge, and found the
road clear. No one behind as far as they could make
out, and no one in front anymore. "Come on."
Dan was breathless, heading towards the other side,
the wild waters gurgling in the steep gorge below.
kept his eyes on Dan and moved forward, and upward,
and finally breaking into a trot across the bridge,
hoping that everybody else had already made it, the
plan had worked flawlessly up to now. "Getting
almost done", he murmured. "And
then you'll have the doc look at your knees."
glanced to the side, grimacing. "Yeah, yeah, if
you get yourself stitched up properly, I will."
I won't carry you there." Not the way my side fucking
hurts, Vadim thought, but bit back the complaining.
funny, arsehole." They'd made it, reached the other
side, and Dan grinned at Vadim, teeth and all.
quickly over his shoulder, Vadim crouched down behind
an outcrop of rock, resting, if only for a few seconds.
"Blow the bitch up, then let's go home."
even though 'home' is relative. Any idea how far to
a clue. Would have to check the map and compass
what did it matter right now, all that did matter
was the radio controller in his pocket, and Dan took
it out, checking the device. Nodding to himself when
everything seemed fine. "Right, then, you better
duck." Vadim rested with his back against the rocks,
keeping his head down.
behind an outcrop, Dan counted from three to one and
hit the button. Waited. Counted the ten seconds of safety
fucked?" Vadim glanced to the side. "Any other
way how it can be blown up?"
shit. There was a second one, manual, but it means getting
across, sticking it in and setting it manually then
run back." Once again with heartfelt frustration,
Dan hissed, "Fuck!"
glanced over the bridge. "Listen, Dan, I'll do
it. I'm the faster runner. I know where the package
is. You just
lie here in wait and make sure they
won't take pot-shots at me, yes?"
you can fucking forget it! I know what I'm doing. I
set it, remember? No fucking way." Holding onto
Vadim's arm. "Besides, I'm not a sniper, never
was, I'd be crap. No, I go."
Vadim covered Dan's hand on his arm with his hand. "With
your legs? Whoever does it needs to be fast. I'm faster
than you, easily. Shit." Taking the sniper rifle
off, he pushed it into Dan's hand. "There. You
know the Dragunov. It's a good rifle. Easy to shoot,
" Fishing for the remaining
bullets and pressing them into Dan's hand. "Need
to be quick. They'll soon get the fact everybody's out
of their rabbit holes."
can't do it." Dan looked at Vadim. "Don't
" But emotions meant nothing, and all that
counted were facts. Reality. Sense. "Don't get
caught." Dan murmured, before he took a quick breath,
fished the detonator out of his jacket pocket and handed
it over, then grabbed the Dragunov, fingering blindly
to check the bullets. "I got you." Heart hammering,
feeling sick for the first time in his life. Not fear,
no, worse. Worry for another, which tried to make him
scream 'no!' and to shit himself, or to vomit, but he
merely nodded, got into position on the freezing ground,
on his belly, gloves off to sense the trigger, aiming.
"I got you. Be fast."
smiled, moved in close, already steeling himself for
the run of his life, and quickly kissed Dan on the cheeks,
left, right, as he looked up. "You'll make it up
to me", Vadim murmured, feeling apprehensive, but
the detonator in his hand was a good feeling.
will. Whatever happens." Dan managed to bring out,
sweating despite the cold, but his hands were steady
and his body descended into a calm he did not feel.
cover me. Don't watch me, watch them." With that,
Vadim dropped the AK and his webbing, the parka, everything
that could slow him down now, then he set off, running
in fast, easy bounds that nevertheless hurt his side,
almost crossing the bridge, well beyond the middle,
then rushed over the railing, as fast as possible, using
every skill and every reflex drilled into him when he'd
been beasted on a million assault courses throughout
his life. He located the package and the faulty detonator,
then stuck the manual into the cold, resisting mass
of C4. Inconspicuous, and yet powerful enough to not
only blow him, but this whole structure into smithereens.
was hanging across, low down, about to set the timer,
when a hand grabbed him from behind, a voice shouted,
and cold steel was pressed against his head, as he was
pushed down, down, onto his knees. The man kept shouting
at him, in a language Vadim did not understand, but
he did not need to get the words, their meaning clearly
focused in the muzzle against his head.
switched to Russian, hoping the chetniks understood
the language. "There's a bomb", he brought
out, trying to sound exasperated and angry, certainly
not caught in the act, but the man didn't listen, wouldn't,
no matter which language he spoke. Too rattled, possibly
wounded, and out of his mind.
fingers were reaching for the timer, but not quite getting
there. He'd set it to five seconds. He knew that was
too short to get away. But the objective meant everything,
and he had nothing to lose, not right now.
few hundred yards away, Dan was lying utterly immobile,
thoughts frozen, even the fear had ceased, because it
was too overwhelming to deal with. The horror. The utter
terror to see the worst he could imagine: Vadim. On
his knees. Muzzle against his head, and an enemy behind
him. The Dragunov. The scope. Darkness and flickering
lights in the distance. No night sight, no sniper experience,
and Dan's blood ran cold, freezing everything that remained,
even his heartbeat. Finger on the trigger, moving the
scope a fraction. One chance, just one, and if he didn't
get the bastard right into the head he'd still have
time enough to kill Vadim in reflex. Praying to gods.
Anything. Anything and everything he'd never believed
pulled the trigger.
crack. A shot. For a moment Vadim wondered whether it
was wrong that men couldn't hear the bullet that killed
them, then, he recognized the Dragunov's bark, and he
moved. Moved to be a bad target, then heard the clutter
of the AK, which, thank whichever god of war was being
merciful, didn't spray him with bullets. Good, solid,
reliable AK, and he stretched, setting the timer, quickly,
fingers cold and sweaty, slippery with stress. Thirty
seconds. He could hear shouts from the distance, saw
the boots on the ground twitch as the man died, and
he turned on his boot heel, and legged it. He ran so
fast he didn't have time to breathe, in huge, bounding,
powerful movements, pushing more with strength and determination
than natural speed. Adrenaline so severe he didn't feel
had several shapes in the rifle's scope and he pulled
the trigger into the moving shadows. Again and again,
until he ran out of ammo, only then looking up and seeing
Vadim running. He wanted to shout out his name, got
onto his knees, tried to stand up, but too late, when
an almighty explosion rocked the ground and tore the
steel construction apart. Fire, blast wave, pushing
into Vadim's back, so close to the other side, but not
impact took Vadim's breath first, he jumped to cover
more distance, the horror of shrapnel all too real,
then losing his footing, sailing through the air and
hitting the side of the mountain with his full weight.
His vision blurred, pulled together into what seemed
a tunnel, then came the pain, and it came full force,
a grinding, twisting, merciless pain in his side. Vadim
didn't move, couldn't breathe for several long moments,
then reached out with a hand to push himself up, but
he could have tried to lift a car. Too heavy, too much
strength, he hardly managed to place the arm into position.
Fuck. Pain. He could move his foot, barely, but the
pain was bad.
Dan managed to shout, slung the rifle over his shoulder
and ran down the embankment, towards. Too steep, and
he lost his footing, slipping, and crashing down. Falling,
falling, trying to scrabble for anything to stop the
descent, but when his knee impacted on the frozen ground,
he screamed in pain. Didn't matter, though, needed to
find Vadim, had to know
and he was there. Lying
still. Dan crawled across, blinded from the flash of
the explosion and mostly deaf, hands scrabbling on Vadim's
clothes. "Vadim!" Touching, frantic and out
of his mind.
nodded, reached for Dan's chest, managed to focus on
him. Thought fuck, Dan looked pale. "Okay. I'm
fuck, fuck!" Dan's hands were almost tearing on
Vadim's clothes, skin, anything he could reach. "Don't
you ever fucking make me do this again!" Rattled,
like never before in his life.
Vadim knew he had to get up, had to move, and tried,
they still had a long distance to cover, the villagers.
He turned, and there was a nauseating ripping feeling
in his side. He groaned, feeling more blood run down.
that was the stitches
Struggling out of his jacket, Dan pressed it against
Vadim's side. "I get yours. Up ... there."
Damn, and the riverbank was steep, but they had to get
going, and he couldn't stop touching Vadim. Offering
help, when he could hardly walk himself, the knee stiffening
up already, but nothing was more important than getting
out of there. "Take my shoulder, step by step.
We'll make it, aye? Nothing's broken?"
looked up, then clenched his teeth, jaw muscles tight.
He needed to get up there. Seemed impossible from down
here, but he did, small, laboured half-steps, Dan providing
most of his support, and Vadim hated having to use it,
but truth was, he wouldn't have managed alone. "Bones
all in place. It's
the soft bits
I'm worried about."
get that sorted when we are back. Just don't bleed like
a damned pig, aye?" Breathless, each word pressed
out between clenched teeth, they made tiny step after
tiny step, clinging to frozen grass and crawling upwards.
Dan almost broke down when they finally reached the
top. The clothes were still there in a bundle, weapon,
too, and the bridge was gone. A gaping hole where it
had been. "Come on
get dressed." Dan
got out, didn't try to get onto his feet, just crawled
over to his bergan, rummaging frantically for anything
he could use to bandage Vadim's wound. "It'll be
dawn soon, and I haven't got a fucking clue what's on
steadied himself against the rocks, just so, because
he wasn't sure he could get up again if he lay down.
Locating his kit, he struggled with the webbing, the
parka, and the two rifles and got kitted up again. They'd
have to go on. Somehow. Maybe the pain would leave at
some point. At the moment, he was dizzy with pain and
stress, and possibly blood loss. "No problem."
No problem." Dan turned around, his jacket soaked
with Vadim's blood, and he shook his head, then bent
down and pulled his jumper over is head. "Here.
Use that. Haven't got a fucking useful thing in that
damned bergan." Bundled up, inside out, it made
a tight compress. Handing it over, Dan got into his
jacket, bergan, AK, then squinted his eyes into the
knotted the whole thing in place, just covering the
wound, knowing his body was begging for rest and food
and water, but there was nothing he could do, but keep
going. He'd been through worse. Right? Right. He'd survived,
having been tortured and beaten within an inch of his
life. Granted, he'd been more than ten years younger.
Tightening the compress as much as he could, using the
webbing to keep everything in place. No use giving in
now. He'd come too close with that muzzle against his
head. "Good shooting", he murmured.
goddamned luck and not a damned fucking thing else!"
Dan burst out, before getting himself under control.
"Take my shoulder as support, we'll keep going.
Bound to hit something at some point." Realising
that if he didn't get Vadim to move right now, he might
never move again, and that was absolutely no option.
looked up, smiling. "We did
Back in that hell of mountains. I fucking hate mountains."
But he began to move, dazed enough that Dan had to guide
and I remember it. You saved my life back then, seems
you've made it a habit of yours." Trudging on,
the limp pronounced, Dan had given up trying to bend
that knee, stiff as a damned rod, and if he glanced
down, he could see the swelling, hardly fitting into
the dirty BDUs. Didn't matter. He had to move, not only
his own life depended on it, but Vadim's. And that was
what mattered, more than anything else.
so they walked, the town's survivors too far advanced,
they never met anyone. Step for step, two shattered
men, stubbly, dirty, blood smeared and smoke blackened,
weary and dead on their feet, with a couple of hours
of sleep in the last forty-eight, and yet they kept
moving. Despite the pain and against the exhaustion.
man supporting the other. One foot after the other,
until the night turned into dawn.